This was a speech given at Columbia
University, October 10, 2006.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a news story on the
Pacifica Program “Democracy Now.” It was a brief story concerning
a series of ads that the Republican Party is running in Maryland
and Ohio in order to appeal to African American voters. As you
probably know, there are at least two major African American candidates
running for political office in those states on the Republican ticket.
The ad has two Black women speaking about how racist the Democratic
Party has historically been towards African Americans and how the
Republicans were the party that emancipated the African slaves.
In listening to these ads I thought about the phenomenon
of white-written African American sit-coms. The white-written sit-coms,
regardless of how funny they may be, normally run the risk, if not
fall into the pit, of caricaturing the African American experience.
The actor Robert Townsend popularized this problem in his 1987 film
These Republican ads are the political equivalent
of a Hollywood shuffle. They play the African American for a fool,
and caricaturize history. Consider for a moment what they argue:
- Democrats were the party of slavery.
- Democrats were the party of the Dixiecrats.
- Martin Luther King was a Republican.
- Republicans emancipated the slaves.
From the standpoint of history, these are interesting
points, but the method that is offered is nothing short of sophistry.
First, it is true that the Democrats supported slavery
and opposed Reconstruction. It is also true that the Democrats
were the party that housed the Dixiecrats. The Democrats were also
the party of the New Deal and the major pieces of 20th
Century Civil Rights Legislation.
I have no idea whether King was a Republican, but
I know of no historical evidence that he ever stomped for Republicans.
And, just to remind everyone, while the Democrats housed
the reactionary Southern Dixiecrats, the reality is that the Dixiecrats
left the Democrats and WENT TO THE REPUBLICANS.
I do not want to spend the entire evening critiquing
the ad, but I thought that I would start there because if one lacks
an historical analysis, and only grabs onto isolated historical
facts, one can find one’s self traveling down a road to disaster.
It is also critical that we beware of sophistry.
These Republican ads do, however, beg certain important
questions: how should we look at race and the US capitalist
system? What is our analysis of the trajectory of the Democratic
Party? What are the strategic consequences of our analysis for
I recently completed reading Professor Marable’s excellent
Living Black History, a book that I would highly recommend.
What it reminds the reader is how integral to US capitalism is race,
or more specifically, racism. If we understand race as a socio-political
construct, and racism as an instrument of oppression and social
control, then we can grasp that thinking of the US—as currently
constructed—without racism is like imagining a person without their
lungs walking down the street.
The entire US political party system is, itself, deeply
linked to matters of race and the system of racism. The Republicans
are correct in saying that the Democrats have a long history of
racism, beginning at the time of the Civil War. Ironically, for
much of its existence the Democrats portrayed the Republicans as
being the party of the Negro. Today it is the Republican Party
that presents the Democrats as being the party of the African American,
and the Republican Party as being, first and foremost, the non-Black
party (even if and when it includes African Americans).
We are jumping ahead of ourselves, however. Let me
first speak some about the US political party system. In order
to grasp the larger dilemmas of US electoral politics and strategy
we must recognize that the nature of the US electoral system is
itself undemocratic. The reasons for this include:
- The nature of voter registration (complicated,
out of the way, not automatic).
- Elections held during a regular work day.
- Lack of public campaign financing, thereby biasing
in terms of the rich.
Of these, the winner-take-all system is that which
needs our principal focus this evening. It is obvious, but useful
to repeat, that if a candidate for office has 49% of the vote, that
49% means nothing for either the candidate or the candidate’s constituency.
50% plus one vote is all that is needed in order to win in
partisan elections. The logic of this system results in an irresistible
pressure toward what should be called party-blocs
rather than political parties. The Democratic and Republican parties,
therefore, are better understood not as political parties in the
sense in which the term is used in virtually any other part of the
world. The two national parties have no official ideologies. Membership
in them means almost nothing other than one’s ability to vote in
a primary election. One is rarely approached to join a specific
party, at least in the sense that one is normally recruited to join
even mass political parties in most other parts of the world.
The goal of winning the election, and specifically
recognizing that the particular interests that one might hold will
very likely be unable to win in a final election unless one is part
of an party-bloc undermines the interest, and some cases even the
possibility for, the creation of so-called minor or third parties.
Thus, the parties become more like coalitions, and while both parties
are dominated by the rich and those who favor capitalism, the distinctions
between these two party-blocs are not insignificant. More about
The creation of party-blocs results in a contradictory
impulse within each bloc. On the one hand, they each wish to expand
their constituencies in order to win elections. At the same time,
they wish to ensure that any new constituencies are subordinated
to the will of the dominant forces within the party-blocs. In some
cases the concern with the subordination of constituencies results
in the downplaying of growth. In the labor union movement—out of
which I come—one can see something parallel where the leadership
coalition in certain unions is not interested in new organizing
because they do not wish to upset the political balance in that
particular local. The fear, of course, is that new people might
overturn the status quo. The party-blocs have a similar
concern. I should add, parenthetically, that this is probably at
least part of what is at stake in the attacks on DNC Chair Howard
Dean and his 50 State Strategy that many Democratic Party
The Democratic Party, which had a significant base
among white workers from its inception, evolved in a peculiar direction
in part due to the demands of this constituency as well as due to
larger macro-economic changes. In order to understand this, one
must begin with the recognition that the collapse of Reconstruction—formally
in 1876/1877—what W.E.B. Dubois called the counter-revolution
of property, was not
simply the victory of the Democratic Party. It was the result of
a shift within the power bloc running the USA with regard to both
the terms of the ruling consensus and the corresponding shape of
US democracy. The dominant sectors of capital, having virtually
eliminated all opposition to the US settler state by the First Nations/Native
Americans, came to an agreement with the defeated ruling elites
from the former Confederacy. The terms were clear: the former
Southern ruling elites would be free to rule the South as long as
they swore allegiance to the Northern industrial capitalists and
their vision of a new United States of America.
Upon winning their support, the Northern industrialists, and their
political representatives, were quite prepared to abandon the Reconstruction.
The political representatives for the Northern industrial capitalists
were largely found in the Republican Party of the time.
Therefore, while the Democrats of the 19th century
were certainly the party of counter-revolution, and later the party
of Jim Crow segregation, the Republican Party after 1877 abandoned
all pretense of being a party in favor of the objectives of Reconstruction.
In fact, their pro-Reconstruction wing—the so-called “Radical Republicans”—collapsed
as a political force. Though African Americans were an important
constituency of the Republican Party (and specifically, African
American men were the voters given that the suffrage was limited
to men at the time), the Republicans were quite prepared to permit
the counter-revolution in the South to succeed and to witness, with
barely a comment, the rise of Jim Crow and the virtual, if not
formal, elimination of the franchise for African Americans.
The Democrats, with the so-called Compromise of 1876,
established a new national legitimacy, at least in bourgeois US
terms. They had, effectively, won the election only to trade it
away in exchange for the ending of Reconstruction. Thus, they became
the indisputable the party of the (white) South, as well as the
party of a section of the white working class, particularly the
European immigrants coming to the US shores. I do not wish to detail
the entire history of the Democratic Party. In either case, time
does not permit it. What I do wish to emphasize is that both the
Republicans and the Democrats were prepared to do without the African
American, the Asian, the Latino and certainly the Native American.
While there were legacies of allegiance to the Republican Party,
such as among African Americans as well as among white anti-slavery
populations, e.g., Eastern Tennessee, the objectives of the Republicans
did not correspond in any manner to the objectives of the burgeoning
African American freedom movement.
The urbanization of the USA presented the Democratic
Party with a steadily growing challenge, as well as opportunity.
While dominated by the wealthy, the Democratic Party presented itself
in the aftermath of the collapse of the Populist Party (and larger
Populist political insurgency) as the party of the common white
man. Noted racist and celebrity William Jennings Bryan was one
of the principal architects of this ideological fusion, for lack
of a better term. Absorbing much of the Populist sentiment, as
well as having constructed alliances with the union movement under
the leadership of the American Federation of Labor, the Democratic
Party positioned itself to be seen as the anti-elite political party.
It is with this in mind that we then hit the 1932
election and the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It bears remembering
that Roosevelt, himself born with a silver spoon in his mouth, set
out to stabilize US capitalism in the midst of the worst economic
depression the country had ever suffered. Yet Roosevelt’s initial
efforts met with great resistance from progressive forces who saw
them as based more upon Benito Mussolini’s fascist corporate
state experiment rather than on anything left-of-center. It
was, however, in the face of resistance to many of his initial reforms
from ultra-conservative sections of capital that Roosevelt felt
compelled to become the FDR we know through history and myth.
His reforms necessitated a new alliance, and sections of the working
class served as this base. Roosevelt, then, shifted to the ‘left’
in order to save capitalism. Ultra-Right sections of capital were
so furious about this that they contemplated a military coup against
The New Deal reforms were, then, not intended to help
African Americans or any other people of color, but due to who we
were and where people of color found themselves in the pecking order,
we benefited to varying degrees from some of these reforms, but
not without struggle. In fact, the New Deal can be said to have
increased the gap between whites and people of color, despite the
fact that people of color came to benefit from it, because of the
racial manner in which the reforms were implemented. In either
case, the New Deal reforms, and FDR’s outreach to various hitherto
ignored sections of the population, created the foundation for what
came to be known as the New Deal Coalition.
The Dixiecrats, as the Southern opponents of liberal
reform came to be known, resisted any attempts to expand the benefits
of the New Deal, and, indeed, to expand the franchise. As the New
Deal coalition increased in strength and scope, the Dixiecrats fought
a rear-guard action to delay or derail efforts at reform, particularly
when it came to race, but as well in the case of workers’ rights
to organize. The exit of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party
was a step toward the political realignment that began to emerge
in the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign victory.
The Democratic Party that we look at now is the legacy
of the political realignment that took place with the exit of the
Dixiecrats and the fallout from the 1960s reforms addressing
racial injustice, reforms—needless to say—that were introduced as
a result of the struggles conducted by the Black Freedom Movement.
These factors fueled the George Wallace 1968 and 1972 campaigns
and fused with the growing tension within sections of the white
working class and the middle strata concerning their anxiety (if
not opposition) to the demands raised by people of color, as well
by the shifting of the tax burden away from the corporations and
the wealthy and onto the backs of these classes and class fractions
in order to pay for many of the various reforms. I hasten to add
that we are also looking at a party that, in 1972, was prepared
to lose an election rather than witness the victory of the liberal
Why is any of this important? First, the Southern
Strategy of Richard Nixon in the 1968 election was more than a Southern
strategy. It was a white people’s strategy. It was an effort to
align the Republican squarely with the white backlash against the
Black Freedom Movement and the movements for justice on the part
of other oppressed groups. It was also stage one in the effort
to eliminate a liberal wing of the Republican Party. In other words,
while the Southern Strategy attempted many things, race was central
to the efforts at political realignment.
Second, and related, in aligning the Republicans with
the white backlash, the Republicans began to paint the Democrats
more and more as the party of Black people. This was often coded
in terms of “special interests,” though the expression was aimed
against organized labor and the Women’s Movement as well. But in
the minds of white people, special interests particularly
meant the interests of those of us of color. The Republicans, on
the other hand, were to be the party that was NOT BLACK. This did
not mean, however, that Black people were eliminated from the Party.
Rather, it meant that there was and is no place within the Republican
Party for a Black agenda.
The Democrats never accepted the notion that they
were the party of Black people. They were forced by circumstances,
however, to include traditionally excluded groups, e.g., Blacks,
Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Women, but this did not make
the Democratic Party a party of the people. It was only
a more inclusive party, constituency-wise (but NOT power-wise).
With the emergence first of Jimmy Carter, and later
the Democratic Leadership Council, the ruling echelon of the Democratic
Party beat a retreat away from the legacy of both Lyndon Johnson
(on domestic policy) and George McGovern (in terms of both foreign
policy and his vision of the Democratic Party) and started moving
more toward the Right. The tendencies which were to be known as
the New Democrat and the Neo-Liberal (at first meaning
politically neo-liberal and later economically neo-liberal) came
to the stage in an effort to reposition the Democrats, particularly
with the victory of Ronald Reagan. By repositioning I mean seeking
to recapture the constituency that it had lost to the Republicans,
symbolically in the 1980 election, but actually much earlier.
Interestingly in each election, the core constituencies
of the Democratic Party—particularly African Americans and labor—have
been taken for granted until roughly 4-6 weeks prior to the election,
at which points there would be massive and often panicky mobilization
efforts. Yet, little was done in terms of real voter registration
early on, and the actual and authentic—to employ an over-used term—voice
of the core constituencies were often ignored altogether, particularly
with regard to platform and leadership.
A great shake-up took place during the 1980s. The
Jesse Jackson/Rainbow insurgencies in that decade represented a
massive response to this rightist evolution as well as being an
attempt to mount a counter-offensive to Reaganism. What was brilliant
about both the 1984 and 1988 campaigns was that they were independent
campaigns within the Democratic Party. Thus, voters and potential
voters were not being asked to wait till the final election to vote
for a 3rd party candidate, but were being encouraged to mix it
up within the context of the Democrats. The building, albeit
aborted, of an independent organization of individuals and organizations
made this all the more exciting and, as Danny Glover and I noted
in our 2/2005 article
in The Nation “Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow” (and
the longer version in SOULS) followed from a merger
at the conceptual level of the strategies of the Black Freedom Movement
and the historic work of the Non-Partisan Leagues of the 1920s and
1930s (that is, the notion of a grassroots effort that takes place
both inside and outside the Democratic Party).
Since the collapse of Jackson’s post-1988 Rainbow
reform efforts, progressives have grappled with the direction to
take in the electoral realm. Central to that has been an on-going
debate on the question of the Democratic Party. From the standpoint
of both the social movements of people of color as well as from
the standpoint of the progressive movement generally there is little
to be gained by paralyzing ourselves through endless repetitions
of the either the problems with the Democratic Party or whether
it is at all feasible to consider some sort of take-over of the
Democratic Party (usually phrased as moving the Party to the
Left). We can list until the cows come home the problems within
the Democratic Party, the nature of its leadership, etc. That discussion
only gets us so far because what we really have to consider is the
nature of the electoral battlefield in the United States where we
engage our various enemies and, hopefully, work toward gaining political
power. This does NOT mean, however, that we should abdicate analysis.
What I am warning against are the typical discussions where a list
of the various problems with the Democratic Party is enumerated
and these problems are used to suggest that it is impossible to
work within that structure. This flows from a view that the facts
speak for themselves. The facts never speak for themselves; only
people speak. The facts, including those that we have discussed
this evening, must be the subject of analysis.
So, let’s discuss a little strategy. Strategy starts
with a very basic question: who is the “we” that is referenced
when one speaks of “we” need to organize…or “we” need to confront
the enemy. In the early years of the 21st century one witnesses
the dramatic polarization of wealth and resources on a global and
domestic scale. Beginning a few years ago some commentators began
using the term “global apartheid” to describe this polarization
and exclusion of entire populations from access to any prospect
for a decent life. In the USA one sees this as well. No, it no
longer breaks down along the lines of Jim Crow segregation, but
we do see a class, racial and gender overlap and exclusion. Segments
of the white working class and middle strata have less and less
of a chance of seeing their lives improves. Vast segments of African
Americans, Latinos, Asians and the First Nations have been condemned
to near oblivion watching their homes deteriorate in the environment
of reservations, or the likes of the multiple Camden, New Jersey(s).
And, speaking of the environment, at a global level, more of us
are getting fearful that capitalism is pushing the planet past the
point where it can sustain humanity.
The “we” must be those who have an interest in a progressive
response to the problems that I am delineating. This does not mean
that they have to be conscious of their interests right now. In
reality, they may interpret their interests in very different and
often quite reactionary ways. Yet, they are the potential base
for our work. In that sense I applaud what Howard Dean proclaims
regarding a 50 State Strategy. There must be a progressive political
presence where our constituents find ourselves, and while Dean and
I may be speaking of different sorts of organizations and views,
I nevertheless think that he is correct to say that the Right must
be challenged nationally.
Yet, it is simply not enough to speak in terms of
a mega-coalition or united front of the oppressed. The USA has
a long history of populist efforts that have ignited great interest
but, generally, collapsed into our special Tartarus, the pit of
racism. White populism specifically regularly seeks a means to
address economic injustice without addressing race. It hopes and
hopes that the struggle for economic justice can be the umbrella
under which we all stand. Yet, what racism does is make the umbrella
useless as the winds blow forth and hit us with torrents of rain
from the side.
This was the other feature of the Jackson insurgencies
that was and is so worthy of attention. The populist message that
he offered was one that was infused with a pro-equality, anti-racist,
anti-sexist soul. It was not that anti-racism was an add-on to
an otherwise complete plank. It was that the plank was tied together
with the strings…the muscle tissue of anti-racism and anti-sexism.
The oppressed could see themselves in the Rainbow insurgency! This
conceptualization and actualization must be rehabilitated if WE,
that is, the oppressed, are to win.
I am strenuously avoiding the question of whether
the Democratic Party can be transformed because I actually think
that the question is more or less irrelevant. The Democratic Party
IS, and to a great extent, that is all that matters.
It exists as a particular platform in an environment that largely—except
for a few states such as New York—denies us the ability to develop
viable alternative parties that can compete beyond a certain level.
On that basis, the building of a viable, progressive electoral option
must look at the Democratic Party as ONE piece (but not the exclusive
piece) of the overall terrain on which we should operate. It is
on this terrain that we do battle with the politics of the Democratic
Leadership Council, a force that not only wants the Democratic Party
to move further to the Right, but one which seeks to distance itself
from progressive social movements, particularly those of people
Leaving aside the various criticisms of the Democratic
Party, one argument persists, to which we should give some attention.
This is the argument, to the effect, that given that so many people
do not vote progressives should concentrate on building the non-voter
into a constituency for an independent party. Yes, voter turn-out
is embarrassingly low when compared to so many other countries.
And, yes, much of this has to do with voter dissatisfaction. Yet,
it is wishful thinking to assume that this voter dissatisfaction
is automatically progressive or automatically organize-able. This
does not mean that we should ignore the non-voter, but we are still
faced with the basic question of what to do and where to operate
once they have been mobilized.
What is and has been lacking, at least since the Jackson
campaigns, has been an alternative set of progressive, democratic
(with a small “d”) politics that inspires confidence, offers direction,
and shows itself capable of building a majoritarian bloc. No, not
a bloc built in one election, or even two elections. But rather
a bloc that is serious about struggling for power over a 10-20 year
period…longer if we have to.
This will not happen…that is, it will not come into
existence, if those progressive politics are not infused with anti-racism.
In our everyday political work we must work to deconstruct the racial
fabric of the USA, which means winning whites to understand how
their minds have been numbed by the white uniform they are forced
What, then, are my specific suggestions
as to what can and must be done?
- The organization we need will not come into existence
spontaneously. It will not emerge out of necessity, but will
emerge as a result of careful planning. Out of necessity, people
will resist oppression; only through planning will we create an
offensive, pro-active strategy.
- We need an organization that our neighbors can
join, and through which they can practice their politics. That
means a grassroots organization rather than a coalition of organizations.
- Don’t waste time debating whether we need a 3rd
or independent party. For those progressives who wish to engage
in 3rd parties, so be it. Go for it. You are not my enemy, but
I am not engaged in your project.
- Membership education will be essential if this
is not to be an organization of the elite. Grassroots education
about the political and economic system; education that draws
from the knowledge of the base and injects into it new information
and a framework of analysis will become liberating.
- The identification of key organizations and/or
individuals that can serve as the initial bases for this project.
Flowing from this, establishing target cities and counties where
- Figure out where we get the funds to do this.
The other side has the money, but the reality is that they always
have it. That’s why they are the other side. Nevertheless, organizations
of the oppressed have always had to find means of self-financing.
How do we do it? This cannot be a 501(c)(3), so there needs to
be a different way of thinking about financing.
- Project a vision of success and a vision of power;
not power for a great LEADER, but the power through which regular,
invisible people are able to materialize their hopes and aspirations,
and where they feel that they are making a difference in their
- This must be a project that is both urban and Southern.
In other words, we need to look to identify areas that are logically
sympathetic to the politics suggested here. I will give you an
example of two different approaches in what I believe to be a
key area: South Carolina. The Labor Party (of which, in the
interest of full disclosure, I am a member) has just gotten on
the ballot in South Carolina. I applaud them for this work, but
among progressives in South Carolina this is not the strategy
that I would have suggested. Instead, within the Democratic Party
in South Carolina there is a base, largely African American, which
is seeking an alternative. Why not build the sort of neo-Rainbow/independent
organization I am describing here and challenge the current leadership
of the South Carolina Democrats? Rev. Jesse Jackson discusses
creating a Third Rail in the South, particularly among African
American voters. I agree. Build organization among the huge
numbers of African Americans, growing numbers of Latinos and progressive
whites who are, effectively, excluded from power (both power within
the Democratic Party and power within their respective states).
We need to take a similar approach in urban areas, with particular
attention to the theme of the class and racial cleansing that
is taking place in our major metropolitan areas. Our politics
must be more than abhorrence to the current policies of the Democrats
(and certainly the Republicans) but must be pro-active in suggesting
a different course. Our social base within the cities is looking
for a better life and does not wish to be expelled from the cities,
though it does not want to live in crumbling neighborhoods. Let
this fight be our battle-cry!
This is all do-able, but more importantly, it must
be done. History teaches great lessons of what it means to miss
the moment. The system is fraying at its ends. It is our job to
pull that string and start weaving a different garment.
BC Editorial Board Member Bill Fletcher,
Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist and writer.
He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.